Coney Island

everybody’s sayin’ that
hell’s the hippest way to go
well i don’t think so
gonna take a look around it though

—Joni Mitchell, “Blue”

In describing the arc of her songwriting, Joni Mitchell not so long ago said:

My first four albums covered the usual youth problems—looking for love in all the wrong places—while the next five are basically about being in your 30s. Things start losing their profundity; in middle-late age, you enter a tragedian period, realizing that the human animal isn’t changing for the better.

I don’t know: maybe there’s something wrong with me. Because though I guess I too am moving through middle-late age, I think better of people, places, and things than I did when I was younger.

When I was younger, I thought that all would become all right in my lifetime. And I had a tendency to become distraught, at every signal that it might not.

Now I know that won’t happen, all becoming all right in my lifetime. But I know now better what life was like for those who came before, as compared to what it is like for those who are here now. Because I have been afforded the luxury of traveling widely, in space and time, through history.

And I see movement. I see an arc. I see that it is long, so very long, but I see that nonetheless it indeed bends that way, towards all becoming all right. Someday.

Not in my lifetime, of course.

In determining whether people, places, and things are moving more towards the good, the bad, or the ugly, it is first necessary to be pitiless in perceiving the true nature of creation.

Alain Danielou does that, in his book Shiva and Dionysus. In unearthing what he argues is the primordial human religion, which he calls Shivaism.

The Creator is a cruel god who made a world in which nothing can live but by destroying life through the killing of other living beings. Thus, no being can exist except by devouring other forms of life, whether vegetable or animal, and this is one of the fundamental aspects of created nature. Life in the world, both animal and human, is nothing but an interminable slaughter. To exist means to eat and to be eaten. All living beings feed on other beings and themselves become food for other beings in an ecological cycle. This is why the Creator himself defines his nature as devouring and devoured. “I am the food, food, food, and I am the eater, eater, eater . . . from food are born living beings. Those who are on the Earth live only by food and become themselves food in the end.” (Taittiriya Upanishad, III, 2 and 10, 6.)

This cycle encompasses all of creation, from “[t]he sun [which] only shines by destroying its own substance,” to the smallest plant, which delights in devouring flesh: any gardener knows that no plant is happier than a plant that has just been fed blood meal.

The basic principle of Shivaism is to accept the world as it is, and not as we should like it to be. It is only when we accept the reality of the world that we can try to understand its nature, thus drawing nearer to the Creator and taking our place in the harmony of creation. Since nothing can exist without feeding on the life of other beings, we ourselves must take responsibility before the gods who have ordained it so. In order to share with the gods the respons-ibility for the fratricidal acts by which we are forced to devour other living beings so as to survive, we must offer them victims in sacrifice.

It is only when we are fully conscious of the value of our actions, consciously accomplishing the will of the gods who have ordained that life should only exist by death and by slaughter, that we can then limit its effects and play the part which has devolved on us in the harmony of the world. Only then can we avoid stepping out of our role, and avoid the hecatombs which take place when man tries to ignore his own real nature and that of the divine.

I have found one of the more pitiless descriptions of creation in fiction to be Robert Stone’s Outerbridge Reach.

A signal that all will not be sunny in this work comes fairly early on, when we learn that the book’s title references an odoriferous marsh, receiving a soiled tide; a graveyard of abandoned watercraft, piled atop a ghostly boneyard; the “family estate” of the protagonist.

In a still backwater off the Kill, ringed with light like a prison yard, wooden tugs and ferries were scattered like a child’s toy boats. Some lay half submerged and gutted, their stacks and steam engines moldering beside them in the shallows. Others were piled on each other four and five high, in dark masses that towered above the water. Browne knew the place. It was the property of his father-in-law, Jack Campbell. The wooden boats that rotted there, floodlit and girded round with electrified fence and razor wire, had been working craft eighty and ninety years before.

The busy sheer and curve of their shapes and the perfect stillness of the water made them appear held fast in some phantom disaster. Across the Kill, bulbous storage tanks, generators and floodlit power lines stretched to the end of darkness. The place was marked on the charts as Outerbridge Reach.

He remembered scraps of the place’s history. Thou-sands of immigrants had died there, in shanties, of cholera, in winter far from home. It had been a place of loneliness, violence, and terrible labor. It seemed to Browne that there was something about the channel he recognized but could not call to mind. On the dark shore, the junkyard hound kept barking as though it would go on forever.

Browne is a man of middle-late age, toiling as a luxury-boat broker, who is “tired of living for himself and those who were him by extension. It was impossible, he thought. Empty and impossible. He wanted more.”

And so, though but a middling sailor, and with no experience in such things, he decides to enter an around-the-world, single-handed sailing race.

In an Antarctic storm, he discovers that his boat, a work of human creation, is a fraud—sleek and shiny on the outside, at its core a shoddy chimera of cheap plastic.

The gale whistled in his slackening shrouds like incoming fire. He laughed in despair. He could imagine the long-legged crabs of Fiddler’s Green rosining up their bows for him. He felt warm, sweet and powerless, a morsel, a portion. Above all, alone. Also the wind, for all its fury, was not the only sound he heard. There was a worse sound below that made him prefer it.

The sound from below was nasty indeed. There was something human in its nastiness, a squeal, a squawk. It sounded like the gutter, like an obscene threat, a New York objection. Plastic. Listening, he clenched his teeth.

Its whine suggested loud vulgar language and cheap macho menace. Bad workmanship and sharp practice. Phoniness and cunning. Fucking plastic, he thought, enraged. It sounded like a liar burning in hell. Plastic unmaking itself.

That was what it was. And of course he should have known. He had been seeing the crazes and having trouble with the locker doors. Like a little tin soldier in a paper boat, he thought, biting his lip, heading for the drain. He was riding a decomposing piece of plastic through an Antarctic storm.

It was hard to force himself down into the cabin where the whine was loudest. It reminded him of the kind of dirty laughter it was sometimes expedient not to hear.

He sat down at the navigation table and started going through the chart drawers in search of the boat’s design drawings. He had not seen them for months. The first document he laid hands on was the rough copy of a brochure he had written himself. He stood up and, holding fast to the overhead rail, got to read his own prose.

“Altan Forty! Master-crafted! A seasoned winner in the newest design! All the elements of the precision-designed racer—attainable! Affordable!”

They were his own words. And of course he had approved the boat. More than that: in imagination he had invented a perfect boat for it to be. It had been salesmanship by ontology, purveying a perfect boat for the perfect ocean in an ideal world. The very thing for a cruise to the perfect island, the one that had to exist because it could be imagined. He had been his own first, best customer.

With every gust the fiberglass screamed.

Browne survives the storm. In his crippled craft he abandons the race—though he continues to submit chart positions, now fraudulent, indicating that he is not only in the race, but winning it.

He anchors off an island, once a whaling station, long-deserted, littered with bleached bones.

Not “the perfect island.”

But an island.

An island that is The Thing Itself.

Presenting to Browne, after he has ridden through an Antarctic storm aboard a cruel work of human creation, the cruelty of natural creation.

The nearer sand on the ocean shore was black and soft as dust and he sank sometimes to the ankles. Advancing toward the breakers, he at first felt a sense of liberation. When he was nearer, the murderous force of the great waves was plain. They threw themselves against the stones with much brutality, seeming to double their strength after cresting and accelerate on the final roll. You had only to watch their coming in to feel the dizzying, suffocating force they contained. Each breaker cast up a thin cloud of debris, so that going closer to the water, Browne felt not only icy spindrift on his face but pebble shards and dirt that soiled his eyes. It made him remember than he was not one of the Ten Thousand and that the ocean was his prison and not the road home. The sight of it made him sick so he stretched out and retched on the sand.

Lying there, he became aware of the birds. It was the smell of them, he thought, that had made him sick and not the ocean. There were thousands, right at the edge of the soft sand on which he lay. They had black button eyes and yellow crests through which the sun and spray made rainbows. He stood up and walked over the sand toward them.

Penguins surrounded him like wheat. The ground was slippery with kelp and guano and the landscape stank to heaven. The crowd of penguins gave way to make a path for him. Their clucking calls filled his ears, echoing off the rocks until they made a silence. It was a droll scene, he thought, the Protestant formality of the birds on their icy stone island with a black sky overhead.

[H]is attention was distracted by the sight of a young penguin besieged by skuas. The penguin was alone within a circle of disaster ten feet in diameter. No other bird came nearer. It was eyeless although it stretched its neck and strained to face the sky. One leathery flipper was raised in comic rage at things. The other hung bloody and truncated at its side. Overhead, skua gulls were wheeling. Every minute or so, a skua would descend screaming from the wheel to tear flesh from the dying bird. Browne stopped for a while to watch, then turned away and put the back of his arm across his eyes to protect them from the glare. I want a missionary woman now, Browne thought, to make a story out of this. Mother Carey tending her chickens, God’s sparrows falling aslant his gaze. Creatures for sacred inscrutable reasons denied flight are brought piecemeal into the sky as meat.

Browne does not survive the book.

At story’s end, his wife, a better sailor than he, is preparing herself to enter an around-the-world, single-handed sailing race.

In his stead.

Such a thing doesn’t have to be wise, make much sense; can even be folly.

Because that is the sort of thing that lovers do for one another.

From Eros.

The only force capable of transcending Thanatos.

Which is the force that would, if it could, extinguish all of creation.

In Shiva and Dionysus, Danielou notes how Thanatos expresses itself in the warrior instinct, wherein other living beings are “otherized” and transformed into permissible victims of slaughter.

Since cruelty is one of the basic constituents of the world, it also belongs to the nature of all living beings and is found—more or less disguised—in all men. Apart from vital food requirements, it is found in the form of the defence of vital territory, among both animals and humans. It is also used to ensure the supremacy and “purity” of a species, race, religion, or culture, and is thus one of the causes of genocide.

Each human group instinctively seeks to assert itself at the expense of others, whether “foreigners,” or elements who are considered “different” or discriminated against. Any group may be subject to this collective instinct of cruelty. It may be the people of a nearby country, or of a foreign race, a social class or a religious or political conviction. The taste for violence  and slaughter is latent in all societies. “Purges” are often considered legitimate by the partisans of whichever regime is in power. As a proverb says, “Give your dog a bad name and hang it.”

It is not possible to fight effectively against one of these instinctive forms, while accepting others.

It has been instructive—wincingly so—to see people on places like the Great Pumpkin, people who so piously proclaim their abhorrence of such outrages as hasty imprisonment and torture, nonetheless erupt in full-throated cry that those they perceive as responsible for lawless imprisonment and torture, should themselves be subjected to hasty imprisonment, and, in some cases, torture.

Those, like Alexa, who labored so indefatigably in pursuit of an end to all such wickedness, against all beings, found themselves marginalized, ignored, even belittled, disparaged, and mocked, for declining to support visiting upon the perpetrators, what they themselves had perpetrated.

For the new crowd had righteously given their dog, which was the old crowd, a bad name, and were out to hang it—for the offense of giving a previous dog the same name, and hanging it.

As on the Great Pumpkin a Palestinian man, wounded, as he perceived that it was acceptable there to justify the killing of Palestinian civilians, expressed the opinion that it should therefore be acceptable there to justify the killing of Israeli civilians.

And was told by a Palestinian woman that, no, “neither should be acceptable.”

Because we should not fight fire with fire.  Diminishing the value of human life along tribal lines is something we should reject with every ounce of our beings.

In this she speaks truth.

Just as the day before, also on the Great Pumpkin, came a man who decried life as suffering, and therefore desired a quick end to it.

He had reached this place:

And in reply came a woman who in her own life had suffered much, and spoke truth when she said:

No, we must choose life and hold onto one another with ever fiber in our being; help one another through despair into love.

It is an easy thing to perceive all of life as suffering, irredeemably and unconscionably so, and from there freewheel into despair.
I have been there myself.
But though I still believe that it was one of the mistakes of my life not to pursue a college education—because as a consequence I will in so many ways remain forever ignorant—in a certain sense it was a blessing. Because as I result I encountered history not forcibly, at the relative onset of my life, but at my leisure, in my 40s and 50s. In a reversal of the experience of those college-educated, who have history forced upon them at an early age, and are then turned out to experience the world, I spent many decades first experiencing the world, and, after having lived that, fell into learning what the world once was.
And what it once was, I have concluded, was, in the main, worse.
I realized that I believed this only recently, when, upon reading the hand-wringings of one who “had not the courage to be loyal,” I demurred:
Especially if you’re talking globally, of course we’re making progress. It’s undeniable. Things that are today regarded globally as outrageous were 100 years ago accepted as the norm. Out of the mud grows the lotus, you know that. Globalism will thrive when the capitalism that created it is long gone. Just as the internet, developed by and for the Defense Department, has transcended the Defense Department, and is playing a large part in creating a world where nation-state defense departments are no longer “needed.” Good things often start in crap. Napoleon brought war to the continent of Europe, but in his wake remained the ideals of the French Revolution, which 100 years later had extinguished the power of every ancient royal family in all of Europe.

A couple months later, still somewhat to my surprise, I found myself thumping the same tub, in sounding the coming cessation of the supremacy of the United States of America.

Globally, the US “went astray” under the first so-called “progressives”—Roosevelt, Wilson, that bunch. When, driven by greed, hubris, and racism, they transformed the US into a worldwide imperial power. Truman’s erection of the National Security State sealed the deal. The rest is just one long coda.

The US will continue to wither away as a world power, and that is a good thing. What will be left behind will be the ideals that it preached, though most often didn’t practice.

Just as Napoleon, as his armies first moved across, and then receded from, most of Europe, left behind the ideals of the French Revolution—ideals that he had, in most instances, in fact betrayed. The peoples of Europe made of those ideals what they would. It took a while, but those peoples are now in the process of peacefully achieving the commonality that Napoleon once sought to impose by force.

So too will peoples elsewhere in the world come to adopt so-called American virtues, virtues that Americans themselves too often never much bothered with, and ultimately betrayed.

Within my own lifetime the advances have been profound. When I was born, black people were killed attempting to exercise their right to vote in this country. Today, a black man is president of this country. Several of my closest friends, when I was a boy, were gay, at a time when neither they nor I nor virtually anyone around us, knew what it was to be gay. In fact, there did not even exist then the word “gay.” But by the end of this decade, love between gay people will be as legally and (well, almost) culturally accepted in this country as the love between a man and a woman. I rhythmically rail on this site about the treatment of women, but even in those cultures that most grievously abuse women, not only for the past 1000 years, but into the present moment, what those women suffer has, within just the last 20 years, been recognized, and worldwide, first as abuse, and now as anathema.
Too, without our sophisticated technological society—flawed and febrile as it is—neither my daughter nor my Anacaona would today live. Years ago, ridden by great suffering, they would have disincarnated, gone into the grave. As, for that matter, would have I. No medical system of any previous era could have saved us. Even I, but born into jaundice. Which, nonetheless, in times gone by, would have wasted me away, encoffined, only just born. All that I have been, would never have been.
The grave too is presently where I would be a-moldering now, in any earlier age: for I am today (ye gods) 54. And, until the previous century, the high-end lifespan for our lifeform had for millennia been but 45. Nine years dead, am I.
The technology is saving us, even as it is killing us. It has always been thus, with human tools. Kubrick’s ape first wielded a bone to kill, to take life; only belatedly did he discover that it could also be fashioned into tools that would prolong life.
As I noted here, even as human beings are arrogantly extinguishing other lifeforms from this planet, they are developing the tools to cradle the life essence of those expiring creatures, and even retrieve the life essence of creatures centuries extinct; tools awaiting the day when, shamed, human beings will perceive what they have done to this planet, and proceed to restore it.
As referenced in my Great Pumpkin bloviating cited above, the Internet was born a form of madness: as a tool of communication that could be used by underground survivors of an earth rendered uninhabitable, everyone on the surface having been crisped. Today it is a place where everyone, from all peoples, all over the world, mostly fumble and fart around . . . but will, someday (soon), wake to it as a way to feel towards commonality, towards community.. And thereby, maybe, secure the survival of the planet.
Human beings and other creatures are still being Otherized, and thus subjected to slaughter, as well as other forms of suffering, and all over the globe. But awareness of this, and thus opposition to it, is growing . . . all over the globe. Globalism allowed first the forces of rapaciousness to sow destruction on a global scale. It is now enabling conscience to catch up . . . on a global scale. It will be a close race. It always has been, between Thanatos and Eros. I think Eros will win. Even in the statistics of internet searches I find good news: 25% of all internet searches worldwide involve some variation on the word “sex.” Thanatos cannot match those numbers.
And, you know, really, even if this planet doesn’t survive, in the grand scheme of things, that doesn’t necessarily represent a negation of the notion that the universal arc is towards life.
In my youth, which was not so very long ago, for us earthlings it was a lonely ol’ night: only our tiny blue ball spinning free, it was believed, could call itself home to frail beings of life. Only the Earth, so the Religious Men and the Science Men alike told us, was inhabited. All the rest of the great wide open was one big lifeless void.
We now know this to be bollocks. Both the Moon and Mars—and just as all the Cortez v2.0s were preparing to ferry there to dig and gouge and pillage and rapine—we are told now by the Science People, contain the water that is necessary for what we perceive as “life.” We ourselves here on Terra, so goes the most popular current theory, are spawn of cells sizzled unto the earth by meteorites: we are from space. As I worked on this piece, news emerged that a planet has been spotted, about 20 light-years from this one, that meets “the Goldilocks criteria” for what human beings consider “habitable.” This just months after the announcement that the Science Types had identified 492 extra-solar planets, out of what is estimated to be millions of billions of planets, scattered throughout the universe.
The universe is teeming with life. Our Science Types are just the dark side of the cusp of perceiving this.
Meanwhile, the Science Types already know that our universe is but one of an infinite multiplicity of universes, in infinite progression through space and time.
In all of these universes teem life. In forms and qualities and quantities at present unimaginable to us. But they’re there.
So fear not: all really will be all right. For Eros is ascendant over Thanatos. Always has been, is now, always will be. Else life would not continue. Though it has. And does. And will.
Our little contribution is to help it along. In whatever way we can. We do this approaching from the other side of Outerbridge Reach. From what Van Morrison has identified as “Coney Island.” Not “the perfect island,” because no island in this life is perfect. But the island where one may, as Robert Stone’s whiskey priest puts it in A Flag For Sunrise, achieve “Half moments. Glintings. A little rising of the heart.” The gift of Eros.

i look at the side of your face
as the sunlight comes streaming through the window
in the autumn sunshine
and all and all the time we’re going to coney island
i’m thinking
wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time

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When I Worked

August 2013

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